Sunday, December 10, 2023

York County Local Pursues Passion, Becomes a Leader in the Amusement Park Industry

(Courtesy of Brandon Thom)

YORK COUNTY — There are some kids who visit Busch Gardens Williamsburg and find themselves immensely captivated by its attractions.

They see Clydesdales for the first time, view the European-inspired buildings and gardens, hear sounds that the park presents to its patrons, eat special food, and make memories with the rides that gave them the biggest thrill of their young lives. These captivated kids go home and dream about all that they experienced.

Brandon Thom, who grew up in York County, was one of those kids. What started as childhood inspiration turned into his career as he now serves as vice president of Adventure Island, a SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment property and the sister waterpark to Water Country USA.

While growing up, he visited Busch Gardens with his mother, sister, and his friends.

“I went every weekend. My mom would take me, or I’d go with friends, or my sister and I would go,” said Thom in an interview with WYDaily. “I just loved it. We always went on a Sunday, and we’d sometimes pick not the greatest weather days, but the days when I knew lightning wasn’t around. I was already a theme park nerd and I already knew that the rides would be open and there would be no lines.”

Thom grew up with Busch Gardens. He used to make roller coasters with model train sets that his mother purchased for him, and he became hooked on a computer game named Roller Coaster Tycoon. The first rollercoaster that he experienced was Big Bad Wolf, and he even remembers taking dates to the Williamsburg park.

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“It’s such a beloved property, and I am one of probably millions of people who have a special memory of that place,” said Thom. “So, I like how much people care about it. There’s enough history that even in a publicly-traded sort of corporate environment, they still give credence to that history and keep that place special.”

Throughout elementary, middle, and high schools, he developed an admiration for the amusement park industry. However, the road he took to get to where he is today was somewhat of a personal journey within the industry.

Thom eventually graduated from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg with a degree in finance followed by a career in the oil and gas lending banking industry.

“It was quite miserable. Although I worked with good people, of course, but the job itself was just not the fulfillment I thought that I would get in adult life,” said Thom. “I kind of survived that for two years and I was thinking, ‘What am I obsessed with?,’ Like what is my nerd obsession? Everyone’s got one.’ Sometimes you can make a career out of it but sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you can make a hobby out of it, but I thought, every time I’m at work or taking a lunch break, I’m on a theme park blog or on a rollercoaster database website just geeking out and looking at pictures. So I thought, ‘Maybe there is something there?'”

Thom ultimately decided to quit his professional job in banking and enroll at the College of William & Mary (W&M) to work towards a graduate degree. At that same time, he landed a part-time job at Busch-Gardens Williamsburg working as a team leader of the children’s section of the park, Land of the Dragons.

“My very first experience was operating the little ladybug ride,” said Thom. “I loved it. I had so much fun on my first day. Probably more fun than the combined two years of banking. I told myself, ‘I have to stick around and see if I can make it here.'”

In 2013, Thom discovered the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) after being recommended by his advisor at W&M to look into industry conventions that would provide networking opportunities.

“IAAPA has an international expo every year in Orlando,” said Thom. “For a lot of people, it’s their first exposure to the industry.”

IAAPA provided Thom with the opportunity to meet people, make professional connections, and learn more about how the industry works.

“I went to that expo and met someone on the trade show floor that worked for Universal [Studios] Orlando and we struck up a conversation, and he became a mentor,” said Thom. “I kept in touch with him and I’d have these conversations with him just catching up and asking him about Universal and what they were doing. Finally, this full-time version of what I’ve been doing at Busch Gardens opened up at Universal.”

It was Thom’s big break into the Florida amusement park industry. After being involved with that gig, he landed his first salaried position at Merlin Entertainments working with Legoland, and he would go on to work a salary position at Universal Studios Orlando working within the Harry Potter area before he jumped at the opportunity to join SeaWorld.

“My final move was with SeaWorld,” said Thom. “My heart was with the SeaWorld parks because that’s how I kind of got started in the industry and I had all these great memories.”

Since joining Seaworld, he has worked with Busch Gardens Tampa and Sesame Place in Langhorn, Penn.

“All of a sudden I was on the executive team and it was intimidating. I was young. I felt like everything was moving fast but I learned, I asked questions, and I stayed as humble as I could,” Thom said.

The young executive ended up at Adventure Island about two and a half years ago. He’s currently in the midst of his third season with the property.

“Be the best at whatever you’re doing. When I was at Busch Gardens, I wanted to be the best land of the dragons lead there ever was,” said Thom. “Then, when I went to Universal, I wanted to be the best lead that attraction has ever had. Eventually, I started supervising an area. People just notice you when you’re that focused on your team and just making the area that you’re impacting better.”

Thom’s duties differ depending on the day. Several days out of the week he performs park duty management shifts when it gets very busy.

“I’m getting called for any elevated situations that happen with any of the eight or nine departments we have. So if there’s a culinary equipment issue in a kitchen and we can’t make fries, I have to figure out how we get fries there,” said Thom. “On the other side, if there’s a water ride issue, like if a check valve fails, I have to figure out how to find a spare part, how we’re communicating to guests that we’re closing it, and how to pay for it. That kind of day-to-day stuff happens.”

The day the water park shuts down for the off-season is the day that Thom begins to help with organizing Adventure Island’s park improvement projects and capital projects, including concrete work, fence work, paintwork, and new ride construction.

Thom admits that the best way to learn the industry is to get a “frontline job.” Whether that be in food and beverage, park quality, or rides.

As the warm season picks up Thom already has plans on attending this year’s IAAPA conference in Orlando (Fla.).

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